- Wednesday, 3 June 2015

St-Gouëno: Too fast, too soon

Suddenly there was no noise, there was just a dreadful silence broken only by the distant sound of whistles in the background and the four letter word that was repeatedly filling my helmet. It almost seemed surreal, like this hadn’t actually happened - one minute I was driving flat out, the next thing I knew I was running into a bank as parts tore off the car with the front right wheel bent back at 90 degrees. I’d just crashed the car, this wasn’t meant to happen...
The weekend started well enough, I’d had a relaxing five days spent running and cycling, being shown the best parts of Brittany by Martine & Roger who had kindly put me up for the week. There had been rain forecast for Sunday and although the severity of the weather reports was changing daily, the likelihood of it being wet was a certainty. Saturday meanwhile was set to be warm and sunny, and having competed at St-Gouëno last year with a fantastic result I felt more confident than before to push the car that day to see what kind of time I could do. In hindsight I’m kicking myself for not being more restrained - nobody wins in practice and this was a schoolgirl error when only last week at La Pommeraye I was telling myself to focus on consistency. 

The first run went well, I’d risen the hill that week on bikes and the scooter, poured over my previous videos and had the 3.2 km sequence of corners firmly lodged in my mind. St-Gouëno is quite narrow with no runoff and fast too through wooded sections, meaning that in bright sunlight you can be quite dazzled by the staccato contrast between light and shade. My first untimed practice went well if a little quicker than I’d perhaps intended, the box’ in the FR being that much quicker you often end up snatching a higher gear before slowing for a corner, compounding the feeling that I’m approaching quicker than a year ago. At Fer a Cheval hairpin I accidentally went deep under braking before the front bit and I let had the back of the car fighting for grip for the first time, but nonetheless the car felt good and when I timed the video it matched my previous PB of 1:37 in the Westfield. It was 11am and I had some time before the next two runs scheduled for after lunch, so did a few jobs like checking how much fuel that car had used and chatted with some other drivers.

There were a lot of entries that weekend, with six of us running Formula Renaults in class, and a lot of crashes meant that the meeting was running behind. My second run didn’t actually start until 5pm, albeit I’d been sitting in the car at pre grille and on the start line queue for over an hour by the time my run came. I’m not suing this as an excuse (that’s coming in a minute!), but for anyone not familiar with hillclimbing it’s worth pointing out that this can one of the biggest mental challenges to a driver as they sit collecting their thoughts. It’s one of the most crucial elements to this discipline of motorsport - to be able to switch yourself into race mode from the instant you leave the line and drive flat out with your whole run already mapped out and visualised in your mind.
It takes a lot of concentration & focus to find clarity and block out things that can distract you (is the car overheating? Have the tyre pressures changed in the heat? I’m getting hot, etc), and when you are facing delay after delay it can really through you a curve ball. You get ready, go through your routine, close your eyes and visualise what’s coming, subconsciously you maybe start to breath slower and deeper as you tighten your belts one last time, edging forwards as the cars in front go one by one, your heart now beating faster as everything else fades away and there is just you, the car, and the hill you are about to drive.

Then red flag, engine off and you have to wait. You maybe get out of the car after waiting five minutes and getting too hot, so you walk around and chat to someone, and go through the whole process again, perhaps quicker though as they now want you in the car and off to make up for lost time. At the same time your adrenaline level is going up and down, meaning that you can suddenly feel quite tired and almost doze off at times. It’s a scenario that you have to master like anything else, but I think maybe it got to me and I forgot what I should be doing and instead did what I wanted to do - see what was the best time I could do in the dry on a hill I’d already driven.

I went off like a rocket, the car moving around underneath me from the first corner, by the 1.8km split I was over a second ahead of the next driver in class, I was on it for sure and although aware of the fact I was pushing hard everything felt good. Coming out of a fast left right I’d decided to take 4th instead of third on the previous run, and as the car started to straighten up at the exit I fed the power in a little early and the rear pushed wide. Correcting the slide caused the rear to hit the earth bank on the inside, breaking the lower wishbone. For an instant I thought maybe I would get away with it and and keep the car level, but the force of hitting the rear pivoted the front back towards the bank, and the car ran into it diagonally, ripping of the front wing and most of the front right suspension before coming to a stop. Marshals ran over to check I was ok, which thankfully I was so I got out of the car to have look at the damage. I was devastated and couldn’t believe what I’d just done, why had I gone off so fast?!! Deep down I knew the answer, I let the pressure get to me and drove too hard. The recovery lorry came and hoisted it up and I climbed in for a ride back, helmet in my lap thoughts spinning round my head.

Back in the paddock people came to ask if I was ok and figure out how to load it back into the van, which took quite quite a bit of work, and I’m very grateful as it helped me keep it together having something to focus on at that point in time. I just wanted to sit and be alone, but everybody was so kind and it picked me up - before long I was going through what could be saved and making a list of what would be needed to get the car running again. At one point it looked like we could get the parts from another team as Krafft Racing had good stock of spares, but there was a critical part missing so we called it a day.

Sunday arrived with rain as predicted and it was cold and windy too. I attempted a lie in but my brain had other ideas so I emailed the various people I needed to prime for spares and repairs the following week. I spent the day chatting in the parc des pilotes and watching the action, it looked very challenging out there but even so I was sorry not to be driving. I focused on what was needed to get the car ready for Beaujolais in 3 weeks time - I will have the car ready for sure and as I sat replying to emails next Monday morning on the ferry home I’d priced everything up and should have the parts needed to start bolting everything back on at the weekend. Right now all I want is to see the car sat ready in the garage so I can get back out and start driving again.

Here is footage of some of the better moments from the weekend courtesy of AH Video Concept :)

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